Kei Hirata always dreamed of being a dancer. Raised in Chiba Japan, she began dancing at three years old.
She trained hard and landed roles dancing for professional baseball, soccer, and football teams in Japan. But she always had her eyes on the U.S. “American Cheerleaders and dancers were always my idol,” Kei said.
Hirata’s journey from Japan to Oklahoma City was unconventional. In 2011, she traveled from Japan to the U.S. in search of an NBA team to audition for.
She was on her way to a Lakers vs. Thunder game at Staples Center, where she met a group of Thunder fans that would change her life. “I was traveling by myself,” Hirata said. “And the staff on the train dispatched me to that group. They were so kind and friendly, they didn’t have to be, but they were.”
She was inspired by the group’s passion for the Thunder, they encouraged her to fly to Oklahoma to try out for the team. “I had never been to Oklahoma,” Hirata said. “But I knew it would have a nice community and a great fanbase.”
She ended up making the team on her first try, making new friends along the way. Fellow teammate Jennie Broadhurst Randolph quickly became her best friend.
“Kei is the kindest person in the world, no one would have a negative thing to say about her.” Broadhurst Randolph said. “She’s Miss Congeniality, Snow White, you can imagine. As a rookie I was just drawn to her and her kindness."
However, as someone from another country, Kei encountered her fair share of difficulties. “Especially the first two years, I really struggled with language barriers and cultural differences,” Hirata said. “I had these moments where I felt defeated, when I didn’t understand English, or just seeing the difference between me and other girls.”
After two seasons, she decided to go back to Japan. “I thought that was the time to retire, this job is not for everyone,” Hirata said. “You need to retire at some point.”
When Hirata returned to Japan, she acted as a mentor to young children, sharing her journey about being a professional dancer in the United States.
As one of the first Japanese dancers on the Thunder, her story inspired and opened possibilities for young girls back home. “One of the classes I visited, those kids said ‘Miss Kei, you really like the Thunder, and you were so passionate about performing. Do you still feel passionate about it?’”
The kids told her they wanted to see her on the court again. That’s when she realized that she did miss performing and felt like something was missing. “Those kids and I made a promise that I am going to work really hard to go back to the team.”
So, she returned to Oklahoma City, where she's been a Thunder girl now for six seasons. “After around four seasons, I naturally realized I can be myself.” Hirata said. “Be proud of being different than others. It’s a good thing and it helps you stand out in a community or on a team.”
She said her teammates and fellow Oklahomans have become family. “We live in Oklahoma; we experience this community around us and sometimes we forget that there’s more outside of our bubble here,” said teammate and fellow Thunder Girl Ashley Ehrhart. “We get to learn from Kei just how much the Thunder means to not only Oklahomans, but people across our entire world.”
But now, Kei thinks it's time to finally retire for good. “I’m trying to finish this season strong,” Hirata said. “It’s a hard decision to make.”
But no matter what happens and where she ends up, she said she'll be an Oklahoman for life. “It’s been a really amazing experience,” Hirata said. “It’s really hard to say goodbye.”